White House

‘Case closed!’ Trump declares, even as Mueller fires warning shot on obstruction

Special counsel says if he had found no evidence of presidential crimes, he would have said that ‘clearly’

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is seen on a monitor in the Russell Building on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, making a statement at the Department of Justice on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Kelly O'Donnell of NBC News listens in the background. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 2:21 p.m. | “The case is closed!” President Donald Trump declared minutes after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III formally concluded his investigation — even though the former FBI director fired a shot directly across the president’s bow.

Mueller on Wednesday delivered his first spoken public words in two years, saying his investigation was never going to end with indicting the 45th president because such a move would be “unconstitutional” due to Justice Department guidelines that prohibit it. What’s more, Mueller repeated what his 448-page report did: That he and his team did not conclude that Trump committed no crimes — a potential signal to House Democrats that he favors impeachment proceedings.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said before announcing he will neither testify before Congress nor speak to the media. That report will be his final word about Russia’s 2016 election meddling and Trump’s actions related to it, he said before leaving a room at the DOJ in Washington without taking questions.

“We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime,” Mueller said. “Under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional.”

“Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited. The special counsel’s office is part of the Department of Justice and by regulation it was bound by that department policy,” the outgoing special counsel added. “Charging the president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider.”

Trump’s top spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, spoke to reporters for about 10 minutes Wednesday afternoon, and things got testy as she claimed “We think the president has been fully and completely exonerated based on the fact that there was no collusion. There was no conspiracy and there was no obstruction.”

A large group of reporters repeatedly yelled questions, noting Mueller made clear in his statement that he found crimes on which an individual who lacked the legal protections of the office likely would have been charged. And when she was asked if the White House was prepared for the possibility of impeachment, Sanders sent a signal to Democrats.

“We’re always prepared,” she said. “But I don't think the American people deserve that.”

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and other members of that chamber’s Democratic Caucus have long said they see clear evidence that Trump obstructed justice, which is a federal crime. Nadler spoke later Wednesday in New York, saying Trump and others are "lying."

"Nobody, not even the president is above the law," he said, vowing to continue his and other Democrats' probes of Trump.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has resisted pressure from inside her caucus to begin impeachment proceedings against the president, but she was forced last week to hold a special meeting with her members on the topic. She emerged alleging that she believes Trump was guilty of a “cover-up.” That prompted him to end a meeting at the executive mansion hours later and cut off any negotiations on major legislation unless the California Democrat drops her party’s probes of him or quickly concludes them.

Even if House Democrats did manage to pass articles of impeachment, Senate Republicans have given no indication they would vote to remove Trump from office in their own trial.

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, so far the lone Republican member to call for impeachment proceedings, sent this message to his colleagues on Wednesday: “The ball is in our court, Congress.”

Trump quickly took to Twitter trying to downplay Mueller’s words — and again declare victory.

“Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent,” he wrote.

California Rep. Eric Swalwell, one of the nearly two dozen Democrats lining up to face Trump next year, called out the president over his assertion of innocence.

Sanders issued a statement just after noon repeating her boss’ tweet, saying: “Mr. Mueller explicitly said that he has nothing to add beyond the report, and therefore, does not plan to testify before Congress.”

“The report was clear — there was no collusion, no conspiracy — and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction,” Sanders said. “Special Counsel Mueller also stated that Attorney General [William] Barr acted in good faith in his handling of the report. After two years, the Special Counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same.”

Notably, Sanders dropped “no obstruction” from the part between the dashes, which she and her boss have included with “no collusion” for more than two years.

As her statement alludes to, only Barr — a leading believer in the “unitary executive” theory of a powerful Office of the Presidency — has clearly stated that he and Rosenstein reviewed Mueller’s report and concluded Trump did not obstruct justice. Mueller has never said that, and did not Wednesday morning.

His report made clear his team found a number of contacts and meetings —but no criminal-level conspiracy — between the Trump campaign and Russians.

On obstruction, the special counsel’s team was more blunt: Mueller did find evidence of presidential-level obstruction, and included a damning passage about why he didn’t find even more.

The special counsel’s report plainly stated in that section that Trump very much tried on multiple occasions and through multiple aides to hinder, limit and even end the probe.

Trump’s attempts to do so “were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” according to the report. “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

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